The Rapid and Digital Transformation and Profitability of Wakanow

Guest Post by

Dolapo Aina

Bayo Adedeji is a growth hacker, turnaround expert, product innovator, finance leader and
profitability driver. His profile indicates he has a broad and diverse mix of business experiences
across continents, advanced qualitative education and in-depth exposure to multiple business
segments and functions with experience in big data, business intelligence, space planning, cost and
financial planning, management accounting, cost accounting and management.
Bayo Adedeji who is a retail and Tech expert is the CEO of Wakanow; Africa’s foremost travel and
tourism firm which has the largest travel inventories on the African Continent. His passion for data,
statistics and Tech is something unique in the travel and tourism sector on the Continent. His
customer service skill was witnessed before my (Dolapo Aina) interview with him on Wednesday,
February 2 nd 2022; as he had to personally interact with a client on the phone and sorted out what
the issue was.
Do read the excerpts of my interview with the CEO of Wakanow, Mr Bayo Adedeji

Since you came onboard, there has been a lot of progress in terms of how Wakanow has evolved.
Do give some insights into the present situation of things, and do elaborate on what you met on
the ground.


Wakanow has been a formidable brand and formidable business even before my emergence as the
CEO or even joining the company. The brand itself as being something that was built out of the
innovative mindset of the founders. The founders have been able to innovate and think about how
they want to do business, and how they want to revolutionize the travel industry. And they’ve done
that. As the case of any single business. There’s always a transitional time where you go from a
founder led business to commercial and business. Anyone wanting to read this piece and who has
started a business knows that there is a business life cycle. There is a time when you are growing;
there is a time when you are trying to manage cashflow; there is a time when you are trying to move
towards profitability. I came in at a time when we were trying to turn it around to make it a
formidable and profitable engine. I came back after working for Amazon to take cover the business.
We commenced the transformative efforts in the beginning of 2019. There was a 40million dollar
investment into the business and we began to transition the business into a profitable entity. We hit
our first month of profitability in January-February 2020.


That was quite a short period? How come?


Basically, that is the experience I have and that experience is that I am both a professional in finance;
after many years of doing finance for the Fortune 50 companies in the world. Having been an
entrepreneur that has run other multiple businesses, I understand the mindset of being an
entrepreneur, I understand the mindset of running finance and running it well. I understand the
mindset of doing finance and been an entrepreneur. I think that this blend allowed me to do the
right things for the customer and focusing on the business. That being said, I would say, it was not a
short time to hit profitability because it was not a new business. It had existed for twelve years before I joined. I just had to take the machine and go to where needs oil, pour oil; what needs to be
removed, remove it; what needed to be added, add it. I would say, my job was the easy part, the
difficult part was conceiving the idea. That is why I always tell folks that the founders of this business
were the pioneers of this business and they are the trailblazers in this story.


From when you became the CEO till date and when COVID happened in March 2020. How have
you been able to navigate the negative effects of COVID with the travel business? How have you
been able to navigate Wakanow through the two-year global economic downturn?


So, as we hit profitability in January 2020, COVID happened in March 2020, so our celebrations were
short-lived. We went through the covid situation and covid pandemic was a time of reflections and a
time of rethinking for most people in the world. For us, it was a needed break. Now, what do I mean
by a needed break? We spent the time during the covid break to rebuild our technological stack. We
spent the time to rebuild our operations (the way we do business); we spent the time to retrain and
recalibrate our entire business. While everybody was at home during the lockdown, we were on
zoom calls, our tech team was writing codes, we were rebuilding our entire business from ground
up. Oftentimes in retail, you never get a break, you never get a stop. But we got a hard stop in retail
and we leveraged on the hard stop in retail during the covid pandemic.


Why do you never get a stop in retail?


Because retail never stops because people keep coming to buy. You can’t stop by saying; “I want to
close my shop and I want to go and fix it.” That is not what you do in retail. You do night over
stocking and night arrangement and you never get enough hours to do as much work as you would
want to do because you cannot stop selling and say customers come back when I am ready. That is
not how it works because that means you are losing business and you would lose relevance. The
covid pandemic helped us to rebuild our business and that is what we did. We rebuilt our business.
We came out of covid in August 2020 since our airspace was opened in August. By September –
October 2020, we were back to profitability and we have been profitable ever since.


Readers would wonder what the magic is?


The magic is watching your cost and growing your top line. You see, often times people tell you to
grow your costs without telling you to grow your top line. Costs is equally as important as the top
line. If you are making so much money and your cost is outrageous but you are making more money
than you are spending, you are good. Correct but if you can now manage your cost an still grow your
top line, then you are magic spot. And that is what we did. We grew our top line aggressively.
Actually, let me use 2021. In 2021, we were up to 2019. Our 2021 was better than 2019 by 38%. We
were better than 2019 by 38%. That is, we did 38% more business than we did in 2019; with a lower
cost base. We managed our costs; there was no frivolous spending. Actually, we added frugality as
one of our leadership principles. We are a frugal company. We did not do what we are not supposed
to do. We were doing performance marketing; we spent money where we thought, we were going
to get the most returns. Our ROI (return on investments) by channel of marketing was important.
We were looking at our metrics and our KPIs (key performance index) by the day and by the minute
in some instances. We are turning things off when we thought we have gone overboard and we are
managing things like we should do. That is how to run a business and that is what we did. And most
importantly, we took and still take care of our people and our customers.


Some of the things you have said and some the terminologies you have used, reminds me of the
vocabulary and how founders of tech start-ups talk. You are more or less running the business like
a tech start-up company, right?

We run this business with the mindset of a start-up when it comes to innovation but with the cost
management of a matured company. We are not burning money like most start-ups do; we are not
doing cash burn. We are innovating like a start-up; we are innovating fast and on our feet; we are
launching new products; we are trying new stuff every single day; there are innovations we are
working on; our tech teams are continuously building. But we are not burning cash on marketing like
we are drug dealers. We are not spending the marketing dollars. Like I earlier said, I am a finance
professional and I think that comes to play here. We are growing our top line like a start-up. Right
now, in the month of January 2022; we are growing at 104 percent to 2021.


Really?


Yes. A 104 percent growth; that means we are doubling our sales. But our cost line is reducing even
still as we are managing our cost. And we are being intentional about what we spend money on. And
we are still going top line because we are taking care of more customers. And that is the secret. We
are growing our cost at half the rate of our sales. And that is our mantra.


How do you envisage the aviation and travel business post the covid pandemic?


I think there has been a lot of speculations around how the travel industry is going to pan out
without people taking a step back to understand and realise and ask this; why do people travel? We
must all agree that corporate travel is going to be on the downward trend but for people that travel
for meetings not the entire corporate travel. The entire corporate travel cannot go away because
people travel for multiple reasons. An engineer that needs to come and fix a plane in Nigeria would
have to fly to Nigeria. An engineer that needs to go work on an oil rig cannot do it through zoom. A
reservoir engineer that needs to go to Escravos, would still go to Escravos. When you need a
technician to come and fix something somewhere and needs to fly there, would have to fly there.
Because travel is a necessary product. It is not something that just happens because I feel like or
because I want to. It is something that happens because that is the business; I have to physically be
there to fix it. Now, would there be a reduction in travel? Absolutely. But the COVID has also opened
people’s eyes to the fact that they have not seen the world. People’s lives have flashed over them.
And they are thinking now; “I have to travel before I leave this earth.”
Overall, I think that there is going to be a mismatch of different reactions from the market that we
don’t know and I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where the market is going to land. What
I do know is that travel is not going away and people are still going to jump on planes to go and see
their families. People are still going to jump on planes to go and study. People are still going to jump
on planes to go and see the world, explore for adventure. People are still going to have to travel. The
insecurity in Nigeria makes it necessary for you to fly more local. It is smarter to fly now than to go
by road; due to several factors which we know affect us. So, would travel go away? No, I don’t think
so especially in this part of the world where and when we are in the world of travel boom.


From a nationalistic point of view, how do you think that Nigeria can position herself in the global
travel space and maximise her position?


Nigeria has a huge population and with a huge population means you have a larger travel people
than the rest of Africa excluding South Africa. What that means is that the opportunity for travel
continues to be important for domestic travel within the country and even external travel. Removing
some of the barriers for entry would be great to kind of encourage it. Then finding ways to
encourage banks to finance travel. Today, there is no bank that finances travel.


Why so?

You need to ask the banks. There is no “travel now and pay later” scheme from the banks. They
would rather lend you money to marry a second wife.


There is a generalisation that Nigerians love to travel. That means there is a market in that space
but for the financial institutions, is it that they don’t want to or they have not seen the potentials?


Yes, Nigerians love to travel. For the sake of not offending the financial institutions, I would just say
that it is an opportunity yet untapped.


As a finance expert and innovation enthusiast, if you were to be the culture and tourism minister,
what would be your main objectives?


I would encourage people to visit Nigeria. I think that we have not actually even started tapping into
that area to encourage people to visit us. I think that as much as people think Lagos is chaos, I think
that Lagos is a big tourism centre. The night life in Lagos you cannot get it anywhere else except for
probably Beirut.


Beirut. Why did you say so?


I know so. I have travelled the world and I have seen many countries and I know that the things that
happen in Lagos only happens here. Our coastal line is one of the longest coastal lines when you
think about it. When you look at Nigeria on a map, you realise how long our coastal line is. It is huge.
Think about what Moist Beach is doing. Look at what Wave Beach is doing. Look at what type of
tourism you can bring to the waterfront. Look at what Landmark is doing (landmark hotel, landmark

towers) Those are the kinds of opportunities that available for us in this market but we have not
even tapped into bringing people to visit and start making tourism money. I know for a fact that
there are countries in the world that a major part of their revenues come from tourism, countries
like Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Seychelles, Namibia. And these are African countries and we are not
even talking of the Western countries. Because these guys bring foreign currencies to your shores to
spend. People are doing the same thing and the same amount to visit Ghana. But when you think of
the number of people that come home to Nigeria or visit Nigeria in December, you would know that
we have opportunities here. What do they come to do? They come to party. There are opportunities
here and not just outbound but inbound. And we have not even talked about our historic sites
scattered all over Nigeria from Olumo rock in Abeokuta, the plateaus in Jos, the Yankari Game
Reserves, the tourism sites in Calabar.

We have not talked about all the things all over the country.
We have not talked about the beauties in Africa.
Basically, you are saying the tourism sector is still an untapped space in Nigeria?


Yes, it is and largely untapped. Yes, the government has to work on accessibility of some of these
tourism sites eg being able to travel to Obudu ranch in Cross River State. There is no airport in
Obudu, so guess what? You have to go via a four-hour journey by road to get to Obudu. That is
probably not very attractive. But how do you make it very easy for people to go there? How do you
create accessibility? Those are the investments that can happen if Nigeria actually focuses on
bringing in inbound traffic into Nigeria. And it is possible to leverage on this with private players like
ours in the private sector who are ready and willing to work with the government to do such things.


What are some of the plans of Wakanow in the pipeline?


For the sake of giving out our plans and strategies, I can tell you right now that our big plan now is to
grow vertically and horizontally at the very same time. We are going to expand the things that we

own today. We are going to grow vertically, expanding our services and we are going to grow horizontally, and own deeper. But our big strategy is to focus on the customer; it is customer-
focused; which is to help our customers travel and help them to have a great experience when they
travel.


What makes Wakanow unique?


It is our ability to take care of our customers. We don’t close; we run twenty-four hours a day; we
have the biggest flight inventory in the country and in Africa. We are working on the largest
inventories for cars, hotels, travel insurance etc. that is an optionality that we give to the customers
and then we offer a wonderful product called “pay small-small” where the customer can actually pay
gradually to go experience the world. Nobody offers that in the market.


What is the title of the book you are currently reading?


Presently, I am not reading a book but what I am doing is studying and learning. I am trying to learn
more about meta, metaverse concept. And I am also learning more about NFTs (An NFT stands for
non-fungible token. And it is a unique unit of data employing technology that allows digital content
from videos to songs to images to become logged and authenticated on cryptocurrency blockchains,
primarily Ethereum) and more about crypto. These are the three things which are at the forefront of
what I am learning.


Dolapo Aina.

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